Among the fast-rising talents presenting at the Cannes International Film Festival in May was Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, a young New Zealander who plays the female lead in Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” which opens today in the U.S.
In the industry, the casting of Harcourt McKenzie has been compared with Granik’s discovery of Jennifer Lawrence whose breakthrough role was as Ree Dolly in the director’s 2010 movie “Winter’s Bone.”
In “Leave No Trace,” an adaptation of Peter Rock’s novel “My Abandonment,” Harcourt McKenzie plays a teenager living in a forest camp with her war veteran father — played by Ben Foster — who suffers from PTSD. When a jogger discovers them, it upturns their entire existence.
Speaking to WWD in Cannes, Harcourt McKenzie, who for her long-distance audition “did a self tape, sent it off and hoped for the best,” recalled the pinch-me moment of getting the part.
“I was Skyping with [Granik] and she said she was excited to meet me in person, and how I’d need a jacket because it was cold in Oregon.…I was on the other side of the world, and the other side of the camera, and was like, ‘What is going on?’ And then the next day, I found out I got the role,” she said.
Harcourt McKenzie was already familiar with Granik’s work. She’d watched “Winter’s Bone” at age 13 during a mini holiday right after filming her second movie — “a very intense film” titled “Consent: The Louise Nicholas Story.” Her parents, Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie, who are both actors and directors, had let her watch the film as a treat — “not that it’s a happy film,” she said.
The actress has received rave reviews for her own sensitive, low-key, raw performance in “Leave No Trace.” Her character, Tom, is quiet and observant as she navigates youth and life in an unorthodox family setup.
The actress, who got to revisit the film in Cannes — during “what were probably the busiest two weeks of my life” — shared her reading of the relationship between Tom and Foster’s character Will, saying: “It wasn’t an unhealthy relationship, they were just two people who truly loved each other; it’s a love story between a dad and his daughter in a completely appropriate way.…It was just a different way of life.
“I often say that Tom, my character, acted as a medicine, almost, for Will. There’s a lot of maturity that comes with that, and a lot of growing up fast,” she said.
A lot of the filming took place in Forest Park, a nature preserve in Portland, Ore. Harcourt McKenzie, 17, said she felt comfortable filming in the wilderness, as somebody who has grown up in nature. At home in Wellington, she likes to take a path located right behind her house that goes out to the very bottom of the island.
“I always go on that walk before I go away to do something like this, just to ground myself and connect myself to nature. That kind of environment wasn’t new to me,” she said.
Fellow New Zealander Jane Campion is a close family friend, and Harcourt McKenzie acted in a short directed by Campion’s daughter, Alice Englert, who she lists among her role models. Actors she admires include Emma Watson, “because she’s so confident and she speaks out about her values,” Meryl Streep and Frances McDormand.
With her star rising, her parents are really excited for her, she said, but are also making sure that “on this journey I’m not alone, that I have a support circle, so that I don’t get lost in the whole business of it. I think there’s a tiny bit of fear in there.”
The momentum of the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements have also made her feel more protected as she enters the industry, she said.
“It really does. In the past, women have not been respected, they’ve been taken advantage of, and they’re not paid enough. A whole lot has come up recently and I do feel safer than I may have 10 years ago, that people are looking out for me and are aware of how women in this industry and all industries have been treated. There’s more focus on it.”
The actress this year has three movie projects, kicking off with two in Europe: “Jojo Rabbit” and “The King.” At the end of July, she’ll head to Australia to film “The True History of the Kelly Gang,” based on the story of a controversial Australian hero, bush-ranger Ned Kelly, and costarring Russell Crowe and George MacKay.
“I feel like I’m kind of in a dream, this is all very surreal,” said Harcourt McKenzie. A “sneakers, T-shirt and jeans kind of girl by nature,” she’s already caught the eye of two major fashion houses. Watch this space.